November 21, 2018

Jaglom’s ‘Train’ Ride Into Love and Hatred

Henry Jaglom. Photo courtesy of the Rainbow Film Company.

One of the more pervasive fantasies of Jewish boys and young men growing up amidst the anti-Semitism of Europe and the United States in the first half of the last century ran as follows:

He would meet a beautiful blonde — a gentile, an Aryan, a shiksa — who fell hard for him but enlivened her comments with a compendium of anti-Semitic clichés, topped by the boast that she could smell a Jew a mile away. Our hero would never reveal his own heritage until the climactic moment, dramatically and physically, when during an ardent bedroom scene the boy tells the panting girl that he is a Jew.

Actor Kirk Douglas recalled a very similar scenario in his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.” However, Henry Jaglom does him one better in his film “Train to Zakopané.”

Jaglom, a triple threat as actor, writer and director, didn’t have to invent the script. It was passed to him by his father, Simon (Semyon) Jaglom.

In 1928, Semyon was a young businessman, traveling through Poland by train. Sharing the compartment with him was Katia, an attractive Polish army nurse, her female friend and a Catholic priest.

Katia, portrayed by Tanna Frederick, Jaglom’s favorite actress and wife, is obviously taken with Semyon (Mike Falkow), a sharply dressed young businessman, who is given to bowing and kissing a lady’s hand by way of introduction.

As the foursome get to know one another, the chatter flows easily, focusing first on the changes wrought by World War I, though punctuated by Katia’s favorite topic, the greed, slyness and all-around evilness of Jews.

Semyon occasionally tries to defend his (secret) co-religionists, but without much success. The priest chimes in that he can’t forgive the Jews for “rejecting our Lord,” and adds that “good Jews are the exception, not the rule.”

The two-hour movie draws a comparison between the almost universal, open and deeply-rooted anti-Semitism of the first half of the last century and the less open and respectable form it generally takes today.

Nevertheless, Katia and Semyon keep getting closer over wine and dinner at the train’s buffet while marveling at the star-lit sky as the train hurls through the rural Polish countryside toward the winter sport resort of Zakopané. Will passion triumph over prejudice? Will Semyon acknowledge his heritage? Will Katia see the errors of her ways and join a kibbutz?

“Train to Zakopané” draws a comparison between the deeply rooted anti-Semitism of the first half of the last century and the respectable form it generally takes today.

As writer and director, Henry Jaglom is not of the “aw, shucks, ma’am” school of cowboy dialogue. His characters talk volubly, which may overwhelm viewers at the beginning but adds depth as the plot accelerates toward its climax.

Jaglom is one of the more intriguing Hollywood personalities. His resume includes 21 films as director and writer, 11 as actor, and six theater productions as playwright. He is also one of the entertainment industry’s more controversial figures. Some critics laud him as one of Hollywood’s most original’s directors, while other assign him to the lowest level of his profession.

Born in London 80 years ago, his Russian-born father and German-born mother immigrated to America when he was a year old, beating the outbreak of World War II by a few months.

Though raised in a family strongly involved in Jewish causes and schooled in heavily Jewish Manhattan, Jaglom evinced little interest in his heritage until, at 21, he visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, for the first time.

Now he is in the midst of writing “The Third Stone on the Second Row — A Family Memoir and a Brief History of the Jewish People.” He has completed the first 500 pages and in a phone interview said that his Jewishness is evolving with each additional page.

“There is an endless fascination in being Jewish,” he said.

“Train to Zakopané” opens May 5 at Laemmle’s Monica in Santa Monica, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino. It opens May 11 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

The ‘Train to Zakopane’ and anti-Semitism

What is it about travel that gets us to reveal ourselves to strangers? Is it that no one knows who we are and we can play with our identity?

In Henry Jaglom’s new play, “Train to Zakopane: A True Story of Hate and Love,” at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, the playwright explores the repercussions of fellow travelers revealing their most deeply held beliefs, including their prejudices.

“Travel opens you up,” Jaglom said in a recent interview. His story — of a train ride his father actually took across Poland in 1928, disembarking in the resort town of Zakopane — has us confronting an unwanted passenger: anti-Semitism.

In the story, which Jaglom’s father first told to him in the 1970s, a mannered Russian businessman (Mike Falkow) on his way home from a family seder meets and begins to fall for a vivacious young nurse who is Polish, Catholic and anti-Semitic. Will he tell her that he is Jewish? Will she become a philo-Semite?

“My father, when he told me the story, described it as ‘the one thing in my life that I’m not proud of,’ ” said Jaglom, speaking of the fact that upon hearing the young woman’s expressions of anti-Semitism, he didn’t immediately reveal his identity. “He thought he could make a better understanding of the Jews if he acted as a non-Jew,” explained Jaglom, who has written several plays and is credited with writing and directing 21 independent films, including “Hollywood Dreams” and “Just 45 Minutes From Broadway.”

“My father had to leave Russia because of the Russian Revolution. In his early 20s, he became a sort-of minister of trade for the Free State of Danzig,” said Jaglom, who is the first person in his family to become an American.

As for the play’s between-the-wars cultural background: “The Poles, with their strict Catholic upbringing, had been taught anti-Semitism from an early age and were known to be the most anti-Semitic people in Europe, far more than the Germans,” Jaglom said.

It is the ease with which bigotry was expressed during that time that Jaglom felt important to bring to life. “It is the almost casualness of that anti-Semitism that is most frightening to me,” said Jaglom, who was born in London and raised in New York.

“The small ways that bigotry can develop into national obsessions has been for me an interesting thing to explore,” said Jaglom, who, after so many years, has found himself traveling back to his father’s story. The story “talks to all kinds of prejudice,” which he looked at as “the thing that is underneath our rational minds.”

With this play, Jaglom wants to start a conversation about that “thing.” He understands that bigotry is hard to deal with on a personal level and he asks the audience, both Jews and non-Jews, to look at themselves.

Actress Tanna Frederick, who plays the Polish nurse, unexpectedly has had to take a look at herself, too.

“It’s the hardest role I have ever dealt with,” said Frederick, who has found that she even has had a “physical reaction” to playing the part. “The character is making anti-Semitic remarks like she’s passing out candy,” she said.

“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to employ the prejudicial part of my being in the script for this work,” said Frederick, who in real-life is married to Jaglom and has been featured in several of his plays and films. “I’m a girl from Iowa, and it’s a little scary. I was raised with an open mind and raised not to judge,” she said, and in preparation for this part, she has been “trying to find the pain from which this prejudice stems.”

“I am a bigot, but a specific bigot,” Frederick said, referring to the nurse she portrays, a character attracted to the young Russian businessman. “I am a bigot that you look twice at and think ‘Oh, I might have a little bit of that bigotry in me,” Frederick said.

“It’s a very difficult part to ask someone to play. She suddenly has to examine what prejudice of that sort actually is,” Jaglom said.

In terms of exploring how bigotry can transform over time, Jaglom finds the play’s theme “particularly relevant with what’s going on with Israel today,” he said.

There are “many very nice people who never think of themselves as anti-Semitic who are willing to pile on Israel in a way they don’t with any other democratic country that finds itself in these conflicts,” he said, noting that he has relatives who live in Israel. “I think they don’t realize that the anti-Semitism they inherited somewhere from their grandparents, or great-grandparents, is affecting their perception of events in the Middle East.”

“What we thought was over with the Holocaust, what we thought was no longer a part of the human equation, somehow raises its head again in different ways and under different guises,” Jaglom said.

Yet, in the outcome of the story, love mixes into the equation. The main character, “assumes that an anti-Semite is not quite human. Yet his heart is telling him something different,” Jaglom said.

“There’s a delicate balance between hate and love in the world. This play explores what happens when these things blow up in each other’s face,” Frederick said.

“If people look at themselves and explore their own views, and question their own beliefs and what they might have as prejudice inside themselves, I’m good with that,” she said.

“Train to Zakopane: A True Story of Hate and Love” is at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica. For reservations and information: (310) 392-7327 or edgemarcenter.org.